If you’ve been following my career for any length of time, you know that blaxploitation is my thing. Hell, my career as a writer really started with my fascination with blaxploitation, starting nearly twenty years ago when I decided to make a documentary, and in the process began publishing BadAzz MoFo. Much has happened since then, including my opportunity to write the first Shaft comic book series for Dynamite Entertainment, and Shaft’s Revenge, the first new prose novel starring Shaft since 1975’s The Last Shaft. It’s really no surprise that lately I’ve been thinking about blaxploitation more than usual—contemplating what the original movement meant, the lasting impact it has had, and what the future holds. All of this has led me to the belief that it is time for a new wave of blaxploitation to usher in a new era of black popular culture.
I don’t want to get too deep into the history of blaxploitation right here and right now, because that is a subject that requires a great deal of time to fully cover. What I will say is that at its most basic, blaxploitation was a response to the need for fantasy fulfillment within a certain cross section of black America. As a form of entertainment, film is a platform through which fantasies are fulfilled. The same is true of literature, comic books, music, and just about any form of creative expression you can name. These forms of expression are all based in the response to the needs and desires of audiences. The problem, of course, is that what passes for mainstream entertainment has long been tied into the prevailing racial ideologies that are the accepted norm in this country. As a result, black people had a very limited role within the fantasy fulfillment provided by film, and never became part of the modern mythology that emerged within cinema.
Blaxploitation was a response to the absence of black people within the mythology derived from film. It also served as a fulfillment of the fantasies of a very specific audience. These fantasies were rooted in the desire for empowerment, revenge, and heroic figures that looked like members of the audience, moving through worlds that resembled those they inhabited, and fought back against systemic oppression that plagued the black community. For better or worse, this is the very essence of what blaxploitation was and, again, for better or worse, it was all blaxploitation would ever really amount to be.
There are plenty of theories as to why blaxploitation seemingly died off in the second half of the 1970s. Most of these theories are valid and true, though all fail to acknowledge that the death of blaxploitation wasn’t so much the end of its life cycle, but the beginning of its evolution into other things. And few, if any of these theories, really touch upon something crucial that failed to happen within the confines of blaxploitation. At their very best, these films were entertainment; they provided escapist diversion for audiences, manifesting images of power, control, and justice within a world rife with corruption and oppression. But that is all they did. In other words, these films gave us figures that manifested our need for revenge or justice, without providing real justice or revenge, while also doing little to nothing to improve our knowledge of self.
There are many criticisms I can level at blaxploitation—or the vast machinery that created the films, the movement, the era, or whatever you want to use to define it—but there is no greater criticism than the overall failure to provide knowledge of self. Even at their best, these films failed to depict black people as anything other than an oppressed people. Understanding this—to recognize this reality—is the first step in the emancipation from mental slavery. If we can only think of ourselves within a context of oppression, and in reaction to that oppression—be it the need to seek justice or revenge—then we have accepted our role as the oppressed, which is in and of itself a dehumanizing status.
Looking back on 2014, it is clear that black people are as oppressed and dehumanized now as we were more than 40 years ago when blaxploitation emerged to fulfill our dreams on film in the midst of our ugly reality. I don’t need to list the horrific examples that have unfolded this year, all of which have left us screaming for justice and revenge. I hear all this talk of what we need politically just to survive in a nation that has made it all but legal to kill us. I also hear the talk of what we need to keep our dreams alive. Not just our dreams of survival, but our dreams of existing in a world with our own heroes that protect us from the evils we face. We want now, what we wanted then, only we need a better version, because in the end, kicking ass within a context of nothing but oppression, without a larger knowledge of self, didn’t do us much good in the long run. Blaxploitation spawned more followers in the Church of Super Fly and the Church of The Mack—those that idealized the dope pusher and the pimp—than it did those who wanted to be actual filmmakers, or those who even understood what those films were really trying to say.
All of this leads me to where I am right now, thinking about the future of my career, and the future of black people in this country. I ask myself, “What can I do?” I pose this question to other creators, to fans, to critics, and to those that see something is wrong. I’m not just talking “wrong” in how pop culture serves our needs of inclusion and entertainment. I’m talking about the way the criminal justice and socio-political system continues to marginalize, oppress, and dehumanize us. And I’m talking about the intersection of these two realities, for they are intrinsically bound together, feeding off each other like a parasite.
Looking ahead to 2015, I see that the time has come for what I call Blaxploitation 2.0. This is not a call for a new wave of films, but for a revolution in pop culture that provides both the manifestation of our dreams, while also establishing us within a context that exists beyond the ideological confines of the oppressed. Blaxploitation 2.0 is not about revenge, because that is not what we need. And while we need justice, ultimately, that is only a part of what we need, because as long as we are denied our humanity, we will never be given any form of justice. So, if I were to put a definition on Blaxploitation 2.0, it would have to be “a revolutionary movement within pop culture entertainment that combats the long-term systemic dehumanization we continue to endure.”
I know, that’s a lot to chew on. And there’s more to be said. But I’ll start by saying this: “The time has come for the return of the badass motherfucker.” Say it out loud. Spread the word. Stay tuned for more details.